In This Issue
Spring Issue of The Bridge on Urban Sustainability
March 18, 2011 Volume 41 Issue 1

Eco-logical Principles for Next-Generation Infrastructure

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Author: Hillary Brown

Multipurpose constructions aligned with natural systems, integrated into social context, and designed for a changing climate offer a new paradigm for public works.

Today’s global complex of networked infrastructure is indispensable to economic and social development. It is not clear, however, whether current infrastructure can support the metabolism of an urbanizing, carbon-conscious world facing a destabilizing climate. If it cannot, we must reset our compass and develop new strategies for civil infrastructures that support mobility; supply energy, water, and materials; and assimilate wastes.

To achieve these goals, changes will have to be made in U.S. investments in public works based on new paradigms for reconstructing and managing waterworks, bridges, power grids, sewers, landfills, rail systems, ports, and dams. One of these new paradigms would be multipurpose constructions aligned with natural systems, integrated into social context, and designed for a changing climate.

The Crisis Ahead

In 2009, America’s electric utilities, roads, bridges, public transit, rail systems, drinking water and wastewater treatment systems, dams, and airports earned an average grade of “D” for adequacy and safety from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).1 ASCE contends that it will take $2.2 trillion over a period of five years just to restore our existing infrastructure to good condition. With 26 percent of our bridges (162,000 structures) deemed “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete,” and the collapse of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis still fresh in our minds, the dangers ahead should be apparent (ASCE, 2009).

America’s investments in infrastructure, which have been funded at roughly the same level for 45 years, lag behind those of many developed and developing nations. U.S. investments account for about 3.5 percent of total non-defense spending (GAO, 2001). Although the United States is three times the size of Europe, we spend on average $150 billion to Europe’s $300 billion, less than 1 percent of our GDP to Europe’s approximately 3 percent (Tal, 2009). The disparity can be partly explained by the EU’s ability to leverage private-sector capacity in addition to solid, tax-based, public spending. In the developing world, outlays by India and China account for 8 and 9 percent of GDP, respectively (Urban Land Institute, 2009).

Reasons for U.S. Underinvestment

America’s lower level of investment may be symptomatic of its general disinvestment in the public realm. For decades, infrastructure has been pushed to the back burner behind spending for defense, social security, and education. Although a $1 gasoline and diesel fuel tax would yield close to $140 billion annually and could effectively double current expenditures for highway and bridge maintenance and free up funds for public transit (Verleger, 2005), the focus on tax relief has worked against increasing the gas tax, which has not changed since 1993.

Our ability to recapitalize public utilities and transportation has been further undercut by shortcomings in governance and infrastructure delivery mechanisms. Even very large projects are vulnerable to the vagaries of political cycles. For example, an incoming governor single-handedly killed America’s largest public works project, negating a 20-year quest to build an interstate commuter train tunnel beneath the Hudson River.

Projects are also at the mercy of special interest groups and lobbyists. The railroad industry, for example, which has almost monopolized the transport of coal, refuses to allow track easements for the construction of coal-slurry pipelines, a more efficient way to fuel power plants.2

“Silo-ed” thinking by government agencies, regulators, and funding entities also undermines creative efficiencies. Compartmentalized policies for housing, transportation, water, and energy continue to stymy efforts to undertake transit-oriented, energy-efficient, and water-adequate developments. Up until the establishment of the Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities in 2008, we had no capacity to coordinate critical initiatives among the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Even now, we lack flexible instruments for implementing complex projects that combine infrastructural modes and cross state lines. Such mechanisms might weigh complex trade-offs among transportation infrastructures to determine, for example, whether expensive airport expansions to relieve air traffic congestion could be avoided by improvements in more cost-effective, less carbon-intensive intercity rail.3

The imperative for infrastructural investment choices today is for meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. According to climate scientists, reductions in the next 20 to 30 years will be critical to avoiding profound disruptions in Earth’s climate. Thus we must increase public awareness of how investments in conventional infrastructure lock us into long-term carbon-intensive consumption patterns.

Highways all but guarantee emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and GHGs for their 20 to 50 year lifespan. Coal-fired power plants take 30 to 75 years to recover their investment costs, whereas light rail, freight rail, and mass transit can diminish carbon emissions for their entire 50 to 150 year lifespan.

The 2009 American Resource and Recovery Act

Funds expended by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA)—approximately $575 billion of the $787 billion package as of November 2010—hardly represent a meaningful “new deal” for America’s public works. Aimed primarily at job creation and representing just a fraction of current needs, ARRA has largely underwritten backlogged, construction-ready projects that reinforce the carbon-intensity on which our economy depends.

Of the $132 billion apportioned for infrastructure, the 20 percent, or $27.5 billion, dedicated to highways, bridges, and roadways, overshadows the $17.7 billion earmarked for mass transit and rail projects (Urban Land Institute and Ernst & Young, 2009). The $4.5 billion allocated for basic upgrades of the electrical grid is one-tenth of the projected $40 to 50 billion we need (Doggett, 2009; Wall Street Journal, 2009). Only $2.5 billion will underwrite renewable energy infrastructure compared with $8 billion purposed for the remediation of nuclear sites.

By favoring private over public transportation and short-changing cleaner energy, ARRA undercut its own pitch for a “green economy” and has positioned us unfavorably in comparison with other industrialized nations.4 Even worse, it has perpetuated our disproportionately high per capita CO2 emissions—approximately 20 metric tons to Europe’s 9 and India’s 1.07.5

Finally, public perceptions of ARRA as an infrastructural “windfall” may undercut support for future investments critical to meeting increasing demands and redressing chronic underinvestment in repair and maintenance, as well as the replacement of obsolescent assets. Unfortunately, ARRA 2009 missed a unique opportunity to send a tough message about crucial infrastructural needs.

“Infrastructural Ecologies” and Multipurpose, Synergistic Systems

Today’s transportation, waste disposal, water, sewage, and energy distribution systems are necessarily interdependent. Power plants require water cooling, water treatment and public transit require electricity, energy generation requires the transport of coal, and so on. And all of these systems rely on information technology (IT).

Nevertheless, we continue to disaggregate them physically and jurisdictionally into distinct sectors. and we mentally separate utilities and the natural systems from which nearly all infrastructural services are derived. Infrastructural systems are man-made extensions of natural flows of carbon, water, and energy, so appropriate modeling might be based on the symbiotic relationships of natural ecosystems. Based on this whole-system perspective, we might reinvent an ecologically informed, post-industrial generation of infrastructure.

Eliminate Mono-functional Facilities

Just as organisms self-organize by exchanging energy and assimilating waste for their mutual benefit, infrastructural systems might combine functions within single assets. Precedents can be found in pre-industrial, monumental works that show the human capacity to build tectonically remarkable, multipurpose structures.

Multifunctional bridges were built in medieval Europe. The 12th century London Bridge was inhabited and supported structures as high as seven stories, and within its arches, water wheels powered pumps and grain mills. The 17th century “multi-modal” Khaju Bridge in Isfahan (still in use) has a main aisle for wheeled vehicles and aisles for pedestrians; when the sluice gates between spans are closed, the water is redirected upstream to irrigate gardens. Steps on the downstream side still provide public access to the river, and occupied vaults offer cool comfort in summer (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Step-wells in India’s arid Gujerat and Rajastan regions (11th through 16th centuries) are feats of engineering based on traditional knowledge of weather patterns and hydro-geology. Uphill dams direct monsoon rains into underground aquifers, and elaborate below-grade stairways provide access to water at levels that vary seasonally. These stone-lined chambers are also social spaces that provide respite from summer heat (Figure 2).

Figure 2

Today, we might similarly “co-locate” assets to gain economies and operational advantages from the shared use of facilities and real estate. Joint utility trenches or common utility tunnels, for example, could accommodate otherwise chaotic runs of cables for sewers, water supplies, gas mains, telephones, and IT and provide shared access points. Greater use of these unified systems would reduce costs and eliminate disruptions and noise from continuous street trenching.6

Other examples include photovoltaic noise barriers (PVBs) along highways—either PV arrays hung from south-facing concrete walls or stand-alone arrays capable of deflecting highway noise. There are even bi-faced (east and west) PVBs that produce more energy while simultaneously diffusing sound (Nordmann and Clavadetscher, 2004).

In dense urban environments, public works might combine infrastructure with amenities. By 2013, New York City’s drinking water will be filtered and treated in a facility built beneath the Mosholu Golf Course in the Bronx. The intensively planted green roof of the facility will not only provide protective covering, but will also be a community driving range. This roof and an encircling moat of biofiltration trenches will both secure the facility and cleanse storm water, which can then be used to irrigate the golf course.7 A similar mixed-use facility, the Forum in Barcelona, has a municipal wastewater treatment plant completely concealed under a popular harbor venue of public plazas, parks, hotels, and civic facilities.

Noxious utilities, such as electric substations that house unsightly transformers, switchgear, and other equipment and raise concerns about noise and electro-magnetic frequency, all but disappear with co-locations like the ones described above (Cohen, 2008.). In Japan, for example, substations are commonly topped by other structures, and in London they are concealed in public parks or beneath sidewalks (Pincus, 2009).

Rare examples of piggybacking in the United States include the lower Manhattan substation, which was grandfathered in when its earlier version was destroyed on 9/11. Today it is artfully concealed by stainless steel panels within the 11-story concrete base of the rebuilt 7 World Trade Center office tower. Another recent example is a substation in Anaheim, California, that received neighborhood approval once it was buried beneath a two-acre public park. In the same spirit, the Enneüs Heerma Bridge (Figure 3), which connects Ijburg island to mainland Amsterdam, carries multiple lanes of vehicular traffic, two tramlines, two bicycle lanes, and pedestrian footpaths, as well as water, sewage, and other utilities (Wurth and Koop, 2003).

Figure 3

The best examples of the logistical and operational benefits of multi-asset planning are inter-modal transportation hubs, which have attracted significant ARRA sponsorship. U.S. cities from Norfolk, Virginia, to Minneapolis, Minnesota, Normal, Illinois, and Holyoke, Massachusetts, plan to eliminate redundancies by constructing downtown hubs that provide seamless modal transfers while reducing travel time and GHG emissions.

San Francisco is building a five-story Transbay Transit Center that will integrate 11 services (regional bus and rail lines, including intercity high-speed service). With a 4.5 acre rooftop public park, this public/private complex will also incorporate commercial facilities and residential towers that are expected to catalyze neighborhood redevelopment even as they help underwrite this $4.5 billion undertaking.

Another advantage of co-location is using waste from one operation as feedstock or energy for another. The University of New Hampshire, as part of its Climate Change Action Plan, constructed a gas-purification facility at a nearby landfill; as a result, otherwise-wasted methane, now piped to campus, supplies up to 85 percent of the university’s electricity and heating requirements (Ward, 2009). In a similar cross-sector, waste-to-energy project in Lille, France, a new biogas facility, located beside a bus terminal, processes municipal organic waste, which is then combined with sewage gas and used to fuel all of the city buses (Le Saux, 2010).

A computer data farm, installed in bedrock under the Uspenski Cathedral in Helsinki, redistributes its waste heat to warm 500 homes, at the same time lowering its cooling costs by about 50 percent (Virki, 2009). Geothermal energy extracted from subterranean waters that flood abandoned coal mines in Heerland, Holland, is used for heating and cooling in the town and has reduced energy-related CO2 emissions by 50 percent (Demolin-Schneiders and Opt’t Veld, 2007).

Leverage Natural Processes

Sustainable designs combine the functions of man-made and natural systems for the benefit of both. “Living roofs,” for example, insulate, impound, and treat storm water, provide local cooling and recreational space, and simultaneously extend the life of the roof.

Comparable benefits might be realized by rethinking public rights-of-way—cross-sections of sidewalks and street trees, parking and travel lanes, and subsurface utility and storm water infrastructures. In the Hunts Point section of the Bronx, productive green space was created by eliminating travel and parking lanes. Continuous trenches for new street trees allow room for root growth and storm water storage for irrigation. The resulting tree canopy will shade and cool the air by evapo-transpiration,8 thus reducing stress on asphalt pavement and increasing its longevity.

Other infrastructural changes can increase the benefits of daylight in a dense city. Rooftop heliostats (solar tracking and reflecting devices) atop towers in Battery Park City Authority in Manhattan redirect hours of sunlight to a children’s park otherwise shaded by buildings. The simple, low-tech substitution of light-colored paving for dark paving in streets and sidewalks not only reduces daytime “heat islands,” but also increases reflectivity at night, improving the efficacy of street lighting.

Figure 4

The rehabilitation of Wadi Hanifah (Figure 4), a formerly polluted, degraded wadi9 channel bi-secting Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, provides water quality enhancement along with restored natural habitat. In lieu of an expensive water treatment plant, a wide area of the wadi has been laid out with stone weirs, pools, falls, and riffles that re-introduce oxygen. This supports bio-remediation of the urban wastewater by micro-organisms for downstream reuse in agricultural irrigation. With its channel banks re-profiled to accommodate flooding and re-naturalized as urban parkland, Wadi Hanifah is now a major recreational and tourist destination (Arriyadh Development Authority, 2010).

Serve Local Constituencies

Next-generation infrastructure will increasingly be called upon not only to mitigate the noxious effects of operations, but also to deliver benefits to host communities. Unlike many public utilities that prohibit public access or screen operations from view, the Willamette River Water Treatment Plant in Wilsonville, Oregon, provides community meeting facilities and educational exhibits on biofiltration processes used to treat drinking water.

Otherwise-wasted combustion heat from a municipal waste-to-energy plant in Hiroshima, Japan, warms water for a nearby community pool, and a “waste museum” features the processes of garbage handling and air pollutant removal.10 Visitors can also enjoy new waterfront access thanks to careful siting of the facility.

Community-benefit agreements spell out specific amenities and/or mitigations. In Los Angeles, in 2004, a private agreement between a coalition of community-based organizations and labor unions and the operators at Los Angeles International Airport provided for benefits to the affected community worth an estimated $500,000. These included mitigation of noise and air pollution, local hiring and training for aviation-related jobs, traffic mitigation, and long-term studies to determine health impacts. New paradigms like these agreements create opportunities for reframing debates about the siting and maintenance of infrastructure facilities.

Waterfront Nature Park, which runs along the expanded Newtown Creek sewage treatment plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, exemplifies how local enhancements can become trade-offs for community acceptance (Figure 5). At a recently added visitors’ center, employees of the Department of Environmental Protection describe the unique features of New York City’s water and wastewater systems.

Figure 5

Adapt to a Changing Climate

As climate instability increases, infrastructural facilities must be designed or fortified to withstand heat stress, drought, severe storms, sea-level rise, forest fires, and other meteorological stressors. For example, changes in precipitation can affect hydropower, higher temperatures can reduce power plant efficiency, and transportation and transmission systems are subject to weather-related damage. On a more basic level, water resources per se will vary.

Risk analyses based on long-term climate forecasting may indicate the need for upgrading new or existing critical infrastructure. For example, in anticipation of fluctuations in hot weather peak demand, California is implementing policies that encourage locally based renewable energy microgrids and building integrated power systems (Vine, 2008).

The Netherlands has developed synergistic solutions that include active (barriers) and passive means of coping with storm surge from sea-level rise, salt-water intrusion, and river flooding. This “living with water” solution eliminates the need for expensive artificial barriers by dedicating farmland and even designing underground garages and playgrounds that can temporarily impound floodwaters and store them as a hedge against summer drought.

Figure 6

Singapore is diversifying its sources of water with new water-reclamation plants capable of producing potable water and constructing a raised barrage around its Marina Basin (Figure 6) to prevent flooding and create a reservoir for impounding fresh water (World Bank, 2009). In Zimbabwe, the country relies on natural rather than constructed solutions to desertification. The proper rotation of livestock for grazing and fertilizing grasslands has restored millions of acres of formerly eroded, desiccated soil and almost miraculously replenished aquifers and surface waters (Savory and Butterfield, 2010).11 These projects represent innovative solutions to growing water shortages.

Supporting and Renewing Innovation

The needs of America’s large, complex 21st century infrastructure are daunting to contemplate. Ultimately, to regain economic stability and prosperity and to remain a creative and competitive nation, we will first have to demonstrate a capacity for holistic thinking and integrative action.

Finding and using sustainable technologies may be the least challenging step in making public works smarter. We must first move away from silo-ed thinking, compartmentalized policies, and outdated infrastructural delivery mechanisms. We need a program that engenders interstate, regional, county, and local cooperative development models and promotes “eco-logical,” “yield-more-for less” synergies. We will also need a sustained public commitment, logically emanating from a federal model. Other industrialized nations have already reorganized federal ministries and agencies, or formed specialized sub-units to encourage cross-sector development.

Perhaps a strategic, “acupunctural” approach might get us started quickly. To seed and finance progressive investment agendas nationally, for instance, we might consider a pilot program aligned with the proposed National Infrastructure Bank or other government-owned and -capitalized infrastructure financing entity capable of recruiting both foreign and domestic investment.12 By circumventing politics, this approach could promote regional, “triple bottom line” investments that privilege multipurpose, socially contextual, resilient projects based on innovative plans for transportation and utility systems. The financing entity could offer loans or tax credits based on social, economic, and environmental returns on investment, accountability, and transparency (DB Advisors, 2008; Rediker and Crebo-Rediker, 2008).

In addition, there would be a mandate to achieve regulatory coordination and interagency and cross-sector collaboration to ensure the timeliness, quality, and other performance outcomes of each project. Finally, the financing entity could encourage novel infrastructural delivery models through design and construction procurements and contracts that reward innovative, cooperative accomplishments.


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ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers). 2009. 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure. Washington, D.C.: ASCE. Available online at

Cohen, H. 2008. The Neighborly Substation: Electricity, Zoning, and Urban Design. White paper. New York: Manhattan Institute for Policy Relevance. Available online at substation.htm.

DB Advisors. 2008. Economic Stimulus: The Case for “Green” Infrastructure, Energy Security and “Green” Jobs. November. Available online at GreenEconomicS timulus.pdf.

Demolin-Schneiders, E., and P. Opt’t Veld. 2007. The Mine Water Project Heerlen, the Netherlands–low energy in practice. In Proceedings of Clima 2007 WellBeing Indoors. Available online at  Accessed 01-07-11.

Dogget, T. “U.S. Electric Grid Needs Major Overhaul: Utility.” Reuters, July 23, 2009. Available online at

Doshi, V., G. Schulman, and D. Gabaldon. 2007. Lights! Water! Motion!   Available online at pdf.

GAO (U.S. General Accounting Office). 2001. U.S. Infrastructure: Funding Trends and Federal Agencies’ Investment Estimates. GAO-01-986T. Available online at

Le Saux, G. 2010. Get on board with biowaste. Waste Management World 11(2). Available online at

Nordmann, T., and L. Clavadetscher, L. 2004. PV on noise barriers: research and applications. Progress in Photovoltaics 12(6): 494–495.

Pincus, W. 2009. GIS Substations That Embellish, Not Blemish the Urban Streetscape. Living Energy, Issue 1/November. Available online at

Rediker, K., and H. Crebo-Rediker. 2008. Financing America’s Infrastructure: Putting Global Capital to Work. New America Foundation. Available online at americas_infrastructure. Accessed 1-12-11.

Savory, A., and J. Butterfield. 2010. The Holistic Management Framework: Social, Economic, and Environmental Sound Development. Pp. 149–175 in Sustainable Development: Principles, Frameworks and Cases, edited by O. Ukaga, C. Maser, and M. Reichenbach. Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press.

Tal, B. 2009. Capitalizing on the Upcoming Infrastructure Stimulus. CIBC World Markets Occasional Report #66, January 26, 2009. Available online at occrept6 6.pdf.

Urban Land Institute. 2009. Infrastructure 2009: A Global Perspective. Washington, D.C.: Urban Land Institute.

Urban Land Institute and Ernst & Young. 2009. Infrastructure 2009: Pivot Point. Washington, D.C.: The Urban Land Institute, 2009. Available online at Accessed 01-12-11.

Verleger, P.K. Jr. 2005. Energy: The Gathering Storm? Pp. 209–246 in The United States and the World Economy: Foreign Economic Policy for the Next Decade, edited by C. Fred Bergsten. Washington, D.C.: Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Vine, E. 2008. Adaptation of California’s Electricity Sector to Climate Change. San Francisco, Calif.: Public Policy Institute of California. Available online at

Virki, T. 2009. Cloud Computing Goes Green Underground in Finland. Reuters, November 30, 2009. Available online at

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Ward, A. 2009. UNH Launches Landfill Gas-to-Energy Project. Environmental Building News, July 2009.

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1 In a 2007 report, the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton estimated that from 2005 to 2030 the United States and Canada combined would have to invest $6.5 trillion to address these infrastructure problems (Doshi et al., 2007).

2 National Research Council (U.S.). Maritime Transportation Research Board.

3 Conversation with Anthony Shorris, former executive director, The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, July 2009.

4 China, for example, has poured $200 billion over four years into a modern rail system and $34.6 billion last year into renewable energy.

5 Earth Trends, 2004 data. Available online at

6 In New York City, street cuts in a typical right of way occur an average of 12 times annually.

7 Interviews with David Burke (Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners) and Ken Smith, landscape architect, May 2010.

8 Leaf surfaces evaporate water, expending heat energy.

9 A gully or streambed (in northern Africa and the Middle East) that remains dry except during the rainy season.

10 See others/naka_e.html. Accessed 1-07-11.

11 This program, called Operation Hope at the Africa Center for Holistic Management, was winner of the 2010 Buckminster Fuller Challenge. 

12 The National Infrastructure Bank, proposed by Senators Christopher Dodd and Chuck Hagel in 2007, later backed by President Obama, would complement existing federal infrastructure programs and build on the experiences of established state infrastructure banks that have provided more than $6 billion for merit-based projects.




About the Author:Hillary Brown, Fellow, American Institute of Architects, is founding principal, New Civics Work, and professor in the Spitzer School of Architecture, City College of New York.